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The Milk House: The farm radio cure

Ryan Dennis Published on 19 January 2012

A radio sits in the crux of two pipelines at the top of the parlor. It’s mostly tipped to its side and tentatively secured by a piece of baling twine. Dust clogs the speakers and the quality of the reception changes every time a cow walks past it on her way to the freestalls.

It adds to the breathing sounds of the parlor and has a calming effect on both the cattle and the farmer – but more than that, it has a tendency to get us singing, whether we meant to or not.

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The desk in the milk house has a pile of cassettes purchased in the brief time when tapes were outdated but still could be found in bundles for a few dollars. This radio, however, only plays the stacks of discs around it.

The CDs work for a while before being dropped on the concrete or getting wet from the high-pressure hose and collecting skips that you eventually forget aren’t part of the original song. Shania Twain has a notable presence in the parlor – thanks to my father, who claims her albums have the benefit of both her music and the pictures inside.

Every once in a while, if the air is particularly clear, our favorite station out of Buffalo comes in. This is a sign of a good day to come.

Any part of my day on the farm I am never far from a radio – the parlor, the tractors, the truck, the house. When something needs to be fixed, in the shop or in the field, my father drives up the nearest tractor, opens the door and leaves the key on alternate.

There was a radio wired to a post in a small shed where we kept horses and then bulls. When the bulls matured and were placed among heifers, the radio stayed plugged in, singing away.

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Air conditioning can be forgone, but a tractor without a radio is nearly undriveable. When I was young it would pass the time, up and down the dirt furrows or cut windrows, for about six hours. Sometime around then, I would be saturated with country music and turn the dial until it clicked off.

Myself and Emily, our old border collie, were left with only the droning hum of a working machine. Moments later, without realizing it, I would start regurgitating choruses and partial lyrics from earlier in the day. One particular song, “Me and Emily,” found enough modest success on the charts to last a summer and become our song.

If my family is an adequate example, then there is always a song in the farmer’s head, and sometimes he sings it. We sang, foolishly, among each other and thought nothing of it. We sang nonsense and sang with conviction.

We sang with other things on our mind, and we sang without knowing it. It was a way I could be sure we were different from town families. I suspect that because we were able to sing the songs in our head, there were less things we had to keep to ourselves.

They were what we needed to move from milking to feeding heifers to mowing hay without wondering if we were getting tired. They were a release. I wonder if because of the off-pitch melodies we passed among ourselves we felt less urgency to find words for other things.

I live in the suburbs at the moment, and I find myself humming a lot. I want to bellow out partial refrains and near-misses of phrases, but I’m never alone to do it. There is always someone coming down the street or in the next room that would think it an odd and unacceptable reaction to living.

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My self-diagnosis: I suffer from arrested flow. The music in my head stays there and gets bounded in itself. It makes it harder to not concentrate on what you are doing and more difficult to not be aware of yourself. It’s harder to forget that you would rather be in a field, turning sod over.

I try to quell it in sly and unsatisfying bursts underneath my breath in the distance between people, hoping they are none the wiser. I pretend I’m chewing gum if I have to. I’ll cover my mouth like a yawn. Then I hum again.

Still, no matter how frustrated I get with life, I know that there is a dirty radio waiting for me – one that at any point of the day will give me at least two stations to choose from. During the commercials I’ll sing the jingles if I have to, because when I enter the parlor the time for talking will be over.

For their sakes, I hope the cows don’t mind the off-key pitch, because they’ll be hearing a voice that is noticeably rusty. PD

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